After the blah reading month I had in October, picking up a pick Victorian novel like Our Mutual Friend seemed like a potentially terrible idea. If I didn’t have the attention span to read and enjoy short contemporary novels, how could I expect to get anything at all out of Dickens? Especially when I’ve had mixed success with Dickens. (Loved Great Expectations and Bleak House, did not like David Copperfield or Oliver Twist.)
Except, here’s the thing: it was massive Victorian novels, and Great Expectations in particular that helped me make the transition from books for young people to books for adults. When I was in my teens and early 20s, a huge portion of my reading was massive Victorian novels. These were the books that taught me to be an adult reader. I’ve rarely found them a struggle, and I’ve almost always found them engaging, even when I didn’t love them. And friends who like Dickens more than I do had told me that, based on the Dickens I did like, Our Mutual Friend was a good choice for my next Dickens. So when a group of Twitter friends decided to read in October, I figured I might as well try. Friends, I gobbled that book down in a single long weekend and had a great time doing it.
Our Mutual Friend opens with a boatman and his daughter, Lizzie, finding a dead body in the water. The body is deemed to be that of John Harmon, newly arrived in London to claim a large inheritance from his recently deceased father. To get the inheritance, Harmon would have to Bella Wilfer, whose family aspires to wealth but has little extra money. With Harmon’s death and no marriage, Bella loses out on this chance for a fortune, and the estate goes to the next in line, the Boffins, the servants of the deceased.
The Boffins take to their new state with giddiness and generosity, taking in Bella, deciding to adopt a poor child, and hiring a one-legged street salesman named Wegg to teach Mr. Boffin to read (they don’t realize Wegg is barely literate themselves). They buy a new home and seem committed to enjoying themselves.
There’s also a teacher named Bradley Headstone, who is in love with Lizzie Hexam, the boatman’s daughter. And Jenny Wren, a doll maker who is friends with Lizzie. And some lawyers and social climbers and various and sundry other people who are connected to the central characters through a network of mutual friendship. (It was never clear to me who the titular mutual friend is supposed to be.)
Anyway, there are a lot of characters and a lot of story. So much that after I realized that my poor attention span of 2020 could wreck my reading of the book, I decided to make notes at the end of each chapter, indicating who met up with whom and what the key plot point seemed to be. That made a huge difference in my ability to keep up, and it kept me asking questions about what events are of the most significance and which direction the characters are going. Because the characters do evolve throughout the book, as their fortunes wax and wane.
This is a book where the desire for fortune is clearly a corrupting influence, yet where certain basic needs exist and are barely met for some characters. It’s relevant. Poverty creates desperation, but not necessarily criminality. Wealth breeds miserliness, but must it always? And want, of a fortune or a relationship or a hidden treasure (there is one!), can lead people to commit drastic acts. It’s the characters who find a way to let go of their expectations who are able to maintain some sense of morality.
That’s not to say that there’s no sense of justice in this novel. It’s not a book about how the poor should be happy in their poverty or anything like that. It’s more about how seeking to better one’s circumstances at the expense of others is never the right course. And the characters who actively look out for the needs of others are the ones most able to appreciate what they do have. Again, relevant.